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Self Improvement for Writers

November 16, 2010

pile of reference booksHere is the answer if you are an individual who wants to improve the clarity, conciseness, readability, amusement value or any other aspect of your writing.  Read good stuff.

Seriously, find writers you admire and read what they write.  I often read Howard Jacobson’s column in the Independent for example.  He writes in a way that I find satisfying and pleasantly rhythmic.  He also often says interesting things which is another reason to read them, and he is witty.

He uses an informal style (for example it’s and there’s) without making an issue out of it and comes up with sentences that make me want to (rather than have to) read them again.  For example in his recent review of Mike Leigh’s latest film: ‘ It is pitched as comedy but it is a comedy that lies too deep for laughter’.

And then he writes something that I think but have never managed to express so neatly: ‘I’d drag out that sadly neglected word “agnostic” were it not that agnostic sounds a very precise term for a very imprecise state of mind’.

If you want to enjoy our rich and delicious language and learn to use it to influence people, get reading.  I will bring another good writer to your attention soon.  Even better though, go and find your own favourites and share them with us.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2010 10:37

    Those examples are very good but possibly a little too subtle for business language.

    My favourite columnist is Quentin Letts ( for today’s piece). Apart from being very amusing (that may depend a bit on your political loyalties) he has a very succcint style of writing with brief, to-the-point sentences. Often just one sentences to a paragraph (at least that is so if you read it on the web as I usually do). Virtually never a subordinate clause in any sentence. Both in my own writing, and that of MA students I sometimes supervise, a common error is to use too many such clauses and especially to put them at the start of sentence (damn! just done it again).

    Would Jane recommend such a staccato style as QL’s for a business letter or report?

    • November 23, 2010 11:32

      Thank you very much for your comments Frank. I agree with you that Quentin Letts’ style is succinct and to the point and that he is a good role model in that respect. However, his colourful choice of language is the reason that I hesitate to publish examples from his writing here. I enjoy it, don’t get me wrong – but many of the business writers I meet struggle with ‘register’ or the appropriateness of their language for the reader in question. I would hate to be responsible for a reader of this blog calling someone a plonking trollop, for example!

      I am always on the lookout for examples of clear straightforward writing to recommend – so please keep it coming. And yes, the long subordinate or dependent clause is one of the dragons we keep trying to slay.

  2. penman permalink*
    November 17, 2010 11:22

    Thank you Jane for an excellent example of starting not only a sentence, but a paragraph, with the word ‘And’. And it shall be used on my next course.

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